'Green' community center lets participants run the show

At a non-denominational Jewish center in Ferndale, Michigan, Chabad directors step back to allow residents a free hand in deciding programs.

Chana Roberts ,

Purim in a local establishment
Purim in a local establishment
Rabbi Herschel Finman, Jewish Ferndale

A non-denominational "green" Jewish center recently completed in Ferndale, Michigan, became the city's first-ever Jewish center, offering a Jewish setting for various recreational and community activities.

Ferndale is a suburb of Oak Park, Michigan, bordering both Oak Park and Detroit.

"Thirty years ago, Ferndale was very blue collar and anti-Semitic," Rabbi Finman said. "As they grew older and moved out, the neighborhood changed, and rents got very cheap. So artists started moving in, and then others did too. Today, property values are shooting through the roof, and young people are moving in."

According to Rabbi Finman, there has "never been anything Jewish in Ferndale, ever."

Three years ago, just before Hanukkah, Rabb Finman "had nothing to do 15 hours a week," so his wife suggested he "see what's going on" in Ferndale.

Upon investigation, Rabbi Finman found a few shop owners who were Jewish. He approached the municipality, asking to erect a menorah on public property. At a meeting held the day before Hanukkah, Ferndale's city council unanimously decided to allow the menorah, which was erected the next day.

Quickly, Rabbi Finman organized a Hanukkah event, holding a grand menorah lighting on the eighth day of Hanukkah. At the Hanukkah candle lighting, Ferndale's first-ever Jewish event, the mayor spoke, Rabbi Finman "gave out stuff," and they hosted a professional musician.

The fifty people who attended became a core group, organizing classes, activities, and more. For lack of space, initial Purim parties, megilla readings, and Sukkot events, which hosted up to 75 people, were held in a local bar.

"Houses here are relatively small," Rabbi Finman explained. "Most are about 1200 square feet" with living rooms too small to contain a crowd.

Eventually, Rabbi Finman found a house-turned-dentist's office, with 3700 square feet and set on 3/4 of an acre of land. Necessary renovations took a year and a half, and included moving the furnace, replacing every pipe and window, and more.

"The idea was that the facility would be used by participants, and participants would determine what would happen in that space," he explained. "I understood that if we decided what to do with the building, no one would come."

"One person told me, 'Rabbi, if I wanted a beit knesset (synagogue), I would've moved to Oak Park.'"

To explain his policy, Rabbi Finman said, "A lady came right after Lag Baomer, saying, 'My kids go to camp during the summer, and my house is empty. I want to go to camp too.' So we made an adult ladies day camp."

The camp ran for one week, Monday through Thursday, and included camp activities on an adult level: cooking demonstrations, exercises, gardening, creative writing, art, and lunch. On Thursday night, participants gathered around a campfire and sang songs.

"Jewish Ferndale helped organize, but the people did it," he said. "People also asked for yoga classes, so we opened a 'kosher yoga' class."

The center also boasts Yiddish classes, seminars, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings, art lessons, an industrial-sized kitchen, a meditation corner, a community garden, themed dinners, Friday night dinners, and a live-streamed Tanya class, which 60-200 people watch every week. While participants pay for most activities, - "the Tanya class is free," Rabbi FInman emphasized - Rabbi Finman pays the center's mortgage and upkeep.

The Friday night dinners, he emphasized, do not include public prayers. Instead, Rabbi Finman tells people that he has to pray, and invites them to join him in a side room.

"Sometimes we have a minyan (quorum of ten required for prayer), and sometimes we don't," he shrugged.

Rabbi Finman's wife, Chana, is an art teacher and runs the center's art classes. She turned both the family's one-car garage and the center's two-car garage into art studios, with the center's studio offering local Jewish artists a space to work and exhibit their art. During her 25 years teaching in Oak Park, Chana and her husband raised funds to allow poorer families to send their children to art class.

Another unique aspect of Jewish Ferndale is their emphasis on sustainable living.

"One of our mottos is to reuse, repurpose and recycle," Rabbi Finman said. "So that means no plastic, and compostable plates or real dishes and silverware."

When Chana turned the center's garage into an art studio, she turned the garage doors into two huge gardening boxes, to allow those who can't bend down to take part in the community garden. Currently, Rabbi Finman is working to add solar power to the building, and plans to place the solar panels on the ground, to aid in education and awareness.

In addition, the center's industrial-size kitchen is certified by the city's Health Department for commercial production.

"People do factory stuff - salsa, jam, etc. - and I provide the kosher supervision," Rabbi Finman said. "It gives entrepreneurs the ability to produce kosher products."

In addition to its activities, the Jewish Ferndale's upper floor contains four bedrooms, which serve as a "kosher bnb." The location is ideal, just a five minute drive from Oak Park's Jewish community.

Though Rabbi Finman himself is Chabad, he stressed that the center is "non-denominational."

"We want everyone to feel welcome, like they have a place," he said. "We have no label, we're just 'Jewish Ferndale.' You don’t have to be affiliated with something... [The idea is that] no one can say 'they're Orthodox, they're hasidic,' so anyone can come and be included and feel welcome."

"Our mission is still to make Judaism presentable and interesting to people, so they’ll want to get more involved in Yiddishkeit (Judaism)... And if it takes AA meeting or yoga class to do that, then we're going to have an AA meeting."

When asked if he still works in other areas, Rabbi Finman - a father of seven - said, "I need to support my family." Jewish Ferndale takes "up to about twenty hours a week for fundraising and activities," and Rabbi Finman also works in kashrut (kosher) supervision, gives private lessons, and has a radio show once a week.

"I sleep about five hours a night," he chuckled, adding that "he has free time" because his youngest child is 22.

"Our goal is that this facility be used for between 5-7 different activities a day, every day, all day long. Right now we're averaging 1-2 a day, but we only really started in September, when the building was finished."

Garden beds made of garage doors
Rabbi Herschel Finman, Jewish Ferndale

Jewish Ferndale
Rabbi Herschel Finman, Jewish Ferndale

Jewish Ferndale Co-Director Chana Finman
Rabbi Herschel Finman, Jewish Ferndale

The Center for Jewish Creativity
Rabbi Herschel Finman, Jewish Ferndale
The community garden
Rabbi Herschel Finman, Jewish Ferndale

Ferndale Mayor David Coulter presents Certificate of Recognition to Rabbi Herschel Finman
Rabbi Herschel Finman, Jewish Ferndale
State Representative Robert Wittenberg presents official proclamation to Rabbi Herschel Finman and Chand Finman
Rabbi Herschel Finman, Jewish Ferndale

An art class in the Center for Jewish Creativity
Rabbi Herschel Finman, Jewish Ferndale
Participants enjoying a concert in the community garden​
Rabbi Herschel Finman, Jewish Ferndale